A Beginner’s Guide to Stacking Drive Pedals

In terms of economy and sheer possibility, one of the most exciting aspects of drive pedals is their ability to be stacked. Most recognizable dirt tones and many amplifiers — heck, entire setups — can be recreated simply by combining a few drive pedals together and learning how to make them mesh well. If you’ve never tried to stack drive pedals, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. The possibilities are endless.

For instance, let’s say that you’re playing with a clean amp and have a pedalboard whose dirt section includes a Tonebender fuzz, a Fuzz Face, a Supro-like overdrive like a Bearfoot Honey Beest or a Greer Ghetto Stomp, and a Marshall-in-a-box distortion like the ZVex Box of Rock.

From your pedalboard, you can:

  • Stack the Tonebender and the Supro-y overdrive to cop Jimmy Page’s tones.
  • You can turn off the overdrive and turn on your Marshall-in-a-box for instant Mick Ronson.
  • Click off the Tonebender and turn on a Fuzz Face and voilà! Hendrix.
  • Turn off the Fuzz Face and turn the Supro-y overdrive back on and, depending upon how it’s set, you’re in Neil Young territory.

Four very distinct tones made from a fairly modest array of pedals — and that’s without adjusting the knobs or switching amps.

It’s all too easy to throw some pedals into the mix and find that, even with top-shelf effects, your tone becomes bloated, oversaturated and uninspiring."

As you can see, just a few pedals can cover a ton of ground. The trick, though, is to make it work well. After all, it’s all too easy to throw some pedals into the mix and find that, even with top-shelf effects, your tone becomes bloated, oversaturated and uninspiring.

Below are a few hints to help you expertly wade into the exciting and very-wide world of dirt stacking.

1. Think of Your Rig as a System

Even in the simplest rigs, there are a lot of considerations. Your fingers, your speaker(s), your power supply, your tubes, your cables — every piece of your gear, put together, makes up a system and every part of the equation matters.

For our purposes, you need to know, for example, that some drive pedals work better with some amplifiers than others. Guitar volume knob cleanup varies from pedal to pedal, and some pedals coax your mind and fingers to work in different ways than others. Running dirt pedals into a dirty amp is very different than running the same pedals into a clean amp. The list of variables goes on and on.

Since your gear creates a system, it’s important that every piece serves the whole. Each of us tends to have a few favorite pieces of gear, which is fine, but the danger is that we end up trying to force everything else to work within the already-set parameters of our favorites pieces and settings. The secret to stacking pedals successfully is to learn what each pedal will bring to the mix and to find ways to help the pedals complement each other.

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2. Know What You Have, Decide What You Need Next

If you want to add another tone to your board, look for pedals that will complement the tones you already have. For example, assuming that you are largely happy with your tone as it stands, consider trying a low-gain overdrive to add subtle grit and character.

If your tone is fine, but a bit dark, consider trying a boost. Besides the obvious bump in volume, many boost pedals like the ZVex Super Hard-On round out dull tones by adding a sparkling sheen to the top end.

A warm or a mid-heavy overdrive can often tame an overly raw and spitty fuzz. Many players seek “transparent” overdrives like the Timmy, the Himmelstrutz Fitzo or the Hungry Robot to add gain — but not additional EQ — to a more uniquely voiced overdrive. This way, the drives will not conflict with one another. However you slice it, it’s important to consider what you already have to make smart stacking decisions.

3. Dial Your Gear with Your Ears — Not Your Eyes

The key to a perfect drive stack is to pay attention to your EQ. Each new drive will shape the EQ and most drives also increase compression.

Headroom, with each new pedal, will likely decrease. A setting that works well on its own might not be the best setting when stacked.

If you are stacking a given pedal often, you might find that you need to find a new setting that works well both in tandem and standalone. So mess with the knobs. Stacking dimed drives often results in tubby, indistinct tone. Start low, and then add gain — listen to how the EQ and the compression shifts. Try adding gain with only one pedal at a time and don’t be afraid to defy conventional arrangements by switching your pedal order around. You will be surprised by how much your tone is altered by each small change. With a little systematic and thoughtful experimentation, you will be able to hone in on new tonal aspects to create inspiring tones.

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4. Realize That Some Pedals Don’t Play Well with Others

Do your homework before buying. Read reviews and forum scuttlebutt. Maybe a certain pedal simply does not play well with others. Some fuzzes, for example, get too dampened and muddled by the inclusion of other dirty tones. They work, sure, but they simply don’t sound as good stacked as they do alone. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good pedal, but it’s a good thing to know before you buy it.

As you can see (or more importantly, HEAR), stacking drive pedals is a great way to expand your tonal potential. There are a vast array of drive pedals on the market, and with a little forethought and experimentation, there is almost no limit to the types of tones you can achive. Happy stacking!

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